Why Calling People Out Feels So Good

Outrage is consuming more of our minds and more of our culture. In part, we can blame the issues we face. Immigration, racism, disparities, fractious politics – the list is long. Plus, we are wired so that calling people out feels good. Social media taps into this primitive impulse and hands us a tool for expressing outrage. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that we’ve become addicted to outrage.

But as good as it feels, outrage does get in the way of solving problems. Pitched battles about obesity, nutrition, and health aren’t getting us very far.

Outrage Captures Our Brains

Earlier this year, William Brady, Ana Gantman, and Jay Van Bavel published findings from a series of experiments that help to explain this. They showed how moral and emotional content captures our attention on social media. Our eyes go straight to it. We respond. Retweets soar. Not just because this content arouses us. More than that, it captures our attention. We can’t let it go.

You’ll know what we’re talking about if you’ve ever been sucked into a fruitless conversation with an online troll. It takes your time and takes you nowhere.

The Impulse to Punish

We find ourselves driven to call out bad behavior because it helps us all survive. When behavior that hurts everyone crops up, we need limits. We need to rein it in. For the common good and for the sake of community.

But in a recent episode of Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam explains that online communities are different. In communities with close personal contact, we have to face each other. We have to keep interacting. Online we can scream into the void and never face the people we target. So the rage can proliferate, unchecked. We can judge and discard people. It’s bloodless.

Judging Obesity, Nutrition, and Health

Thus, social media can be fertile ground for rendering judgment about obesity, nutrition, and health. Fat shaming is rampant. Fat activists can rage about it, too. Point to conflicts of interest and we can cancel out ideas and research we might not like. We can spread moral outrage about Big Food, toxic sugar, and the threat of obesity to our very survival. Lots of heat. Less enlightenment.

We have no magic answer. Just a plea. Consider asking questions before calling people out. Curiosity and objectivity are better tools for solving problems than rage.

Click here for more from Hidden Brain on how outrage is hijacking our culture. For perspective on a response to outrage – cancel culture – click here.

Rage, photograph © Rolf Dietrich Brecher / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


November 17, 2019

2 Responses to “Why Calling People Out Feels So Good”

  1. November 17, 2019 at 9:32 am, Allen Browne said:

    When we “judge and discard” sometime we just can’t see the blood.

    Good post.



  2. November 17, 2019 at 12:29 pm, Susan Burke March said:

    Thanks for sharing this, Ted. I was clueless about the “cancel culture” and the NY Times column is worth reading. Obama on Call-Out Culture: ‘That’s Not Activism’
    The former president challenged young activists for being judgmental. “You should get over that quickly,” he said. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/us/politics/obama-woke-cancel-culture.html